So I’ve been struggling with life a bit recently. Nothing out of the ordinary perhaps. Just the usual vicissitudes of life – what the Buddhists call dukkha – thwarted relationships, my business not being as successful as I feel it ‘should’ be, the ravages of age, relapsing in my addiction, unexpected tax bills, just the rough and tumble of life. When that happens, and when I stare frustration, failure in the face, with no prospect of change and I can’t see a way out, as a morbid person, my thoughts tend naturally to gravitate towards death. Okay I’ll admit it, I’ve been having suicidal thoughts lately. I know that might come as a shock to you. And you probably think I should be ashamed of saying it – that I should either get the act over and done with, discreetly if possible or share it but only having already overcome it. Because to say I still struggle with it, well, an awkwardness surrounds it that demeans us all. What I’ll be arguing in this piece is that the real shame attaches to a society that has yet to make such thoughts acceptable. I believe it is the taboo around disclosure of such thoughts in the first place that contributes to the pressure cooker environment that leads to suicide.
Many more people than you might expect have suicidal thoughts. Very few actually make an attempt and of those only some succeed, but those who do attempt suicide and succeed the chances are that a contributory cause is the inability to share their self-destructive thoughts.
And let’s be clear; suicide is not just a Japanese affectation. The Campaign Against Living Miserably, CALM say that suicide is the biggest killer of men in the UK between the ages of 20 and 44. That’s bigger than cancer, heart disease or road accidents. CALM believe that “if men felt able to ask for and find help when they need it then hundreds of male suicides could be prevented. We believe that there is a cultural barrier preventing men from seeking help as they are expected to be in control at all times, and failure to be seen as such equates to weakness and a loss of masculinity.” When we consider high profile male suicides in the last few years (Alexander McQueen, Gary Speed, Robin Williams), there is often little inkling beforehand that suicide is imminent. In other words, too many leave us early because they had no way to notify loved ones that their ruminations had long passed beyond the morose.
A university friend killed himself recently in a very public way. He posted a very eloquent endnote online setting out his reasons for wanting to die: being tired of life, not being able to find a partner, financial insecurity, feeling inadequate, not being able to compete in a Darwinian fight for resources and said he had accepted he was part of a natural cull. It seemed very important for him to justify the act. He put together a detailed preemptive rebuttal of potential accusations from commentators that he was cowardly, selfish or over reacting etc for doing it. His pugnacious death note emphasised for me that even in his last moments, his indignation against dismissal of his right to die burned in him. I heard of his death on Facebook hours before I left the UK on a flight to India. In shock on the way to Heathrow I called some friends, but found their reactions didn’t help. One, was initially sympathetic, but made a flippant comment, the other waxed lyrical about how unbelievable was someone could find himself in such a desperate state and how he could not imagine anyone in our group, countenancing such a thing. I found it hard to hear – it was as if he had robbed my right to feel. I resented these friends for misunderstanding me (as my friend may have felt misunderstood). I found it even harder to sleep than normal on the flight and I arrived in Delhi sleep deprived, and quite distressed. The next day, jetlagged in the hotel, I was assailed with dark thoughts. I texted a few people but I also plucked up the courage to call the Samaritans, because I wanted to discuss suicide and my suicidal thoughts with someone who might understand and with whom my relationship would not be affected… My mood only deepened the pathos I felt for my dead friend and his final blog post mindset empathizing with his sense of aloneness and isolation. But it also made me wonder if a more forgiving an accepting attitude towards suicidal thoughts might have alleviated his pressure.
Having had these thoughts swirling around my head I thought I would do with them what I do with all difficult emotions – which is to get them out on paper in an effort to take the sting out of them. As an addict in recovery, I know that the first step to emotional health is always to break through the delusion and denial; recognizing that you have a problem and then reaching out for help. Denying reality won’t help take reality away. It is only in accepting reality that we can start to move forward. I firmly believe that the shame of having these thoughts in the first place and the sense of abnormality it can engender only cements feelings of pariah status in potential suicides. The taboos around male suicide in particular are as pervasive as ever. People find talking about death hard enough at the best of times, but suicide is a breed apart. It transgresses several natural laws, that of self-preservation, nurturing one’s loved ones, the struggle for survival, honouring one’s body and clinging onto the life one has been given. In medieval times suicide was a social taboo. It was anathema to the natural law and to the dictates of religion. Through chapters entitled the Curse of Self Murder and Violent Against themselves the meticulously researched three Volume set Suicide in the Middle Ages by Alexander Murray details a cases where the cause of death was posthumously inferred to be suicide. Souls who wanted to die often attempted to disguise their venture in veiled accidents or sacrificial missions in war. Oftentimes the cause of death was simple recorded as ‘perished with no other persons present’. Euphemism and evasion were the strategies used to deal with this most awful of acts. This is because the theological censure for this act was infernal and sociological penalties for suicide were gruesome, including mutilation of the corpse and ostracism and punishment of the bereaved family such was the sacrilegious nature of this most sinful, heinous act in the eyes of God.
In fact, our proclivity to desire pleasure and to flee pain and to escape terrible things is ingrained in human nature – the law of nature is such. Indeed Scottish empiricist David Hume in his tract On Suicide ridiculed the idea that is a betrayal of our Divine gift of life and wrote that suicide is no more an unlawful interference in God’s plan than seeking to save one’s life when it is in clear peril and it looks like one is fated to expire. Embracing death early, for Hume should logically be no more ignominious than cheating it. He argues that suicide is a rational act to end one’s life and is based on utilitarian considerations of future pleasure versus future suffering. Morally, this is a sound consequentialist argument broadly made by those arguing in favour of legalising euthanasia assisted death for the terminally ill.
Wanting to escape our facticity does have a rationality to it – who we are and what we are faced with, our desires and our calculations of our abilities to shoulder these burdens, our neuroses, limitations as adults. When in a game that is difficult enough play, one feels one does not really have the tools to compete, it is only natural to want to abort the game – unfortunately, as humtrapthis can only be done through self annihilation in violent physical acts.
Of course yearning for death as a youthful end soon became romanticised as part of the quirks of the artistic temperament. A prefiguring of this was Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in Act III, Scene 1 a meditation on life and death. What we learn from this is that not taking one’s life is rooted in cowardice. Because oblivion is the ‘undiscovered country from which no traveller returns’ and that puzzles the will. And the act itself ‘when he himself might his own quietus make, with a bare bodkin’ is shrouded in euphemism. The lugubrious prince bemoans the wearisome nature of life and says the promise of welcome delivery from the ‘hundred natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ is only avoided because we lose our nerve. Almost 300 years later came the poem Two Voices, written by Alfred Tennyson. The original title was “Thoughts of a Suicide”. In it, the two voices in his head battle for prominence, one urging self extinction, the other holding out hope for a better future. The two couplets that sum up the debate are “I said, “When I am gone away, “He dared not tarry,’ men will say, Doing dishonour to my clay.” “This is more vile,” he made reply, “To breathe and loathe, to live and sign, Than once from dread pain to die.” And then elsewhere is written “life of nothings, nothing worth, From that first nothing ere his birth To that last nothing under earth.” The poem as I read it is about the essential pointlessness of human life but in the end Tennyson concludes that carrying on regardless is truer to our human spirit than ending it.
Fast forward from 1842 to 1996 and we have Notorious BIG’s Suicidal Thoughts. “When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell. Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell.” And then
“I swear to God I want to just slit my wrists and end this bullshit / Throw the Magnum to my head, threaten to pull sh-t.” Self-hatred, anger, abnegation, a sense of worthlessness and nihilism are part of the hyper masculinity, the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ethos of hip-hop culture. Tupac mused as to how long he would be remembered after his demise in When I’m Gone. Since gangsta rap, the whole genre of rap music conjures up a claustrophobic milieu of haters, backstabbers and a competitive zero sum hustle playing for survival in the game.
What I think is interesting about this though is that the poetic intensity and melodrama of existential monologues makes suicide into a glamorous (if final) lifestyle choice for high rollers and thrill seekers. This masks the uninvited grimness of mundane lives gone hard and of suicidal thoughts as a common lifestage event. Demographic sequence analysis demonstrates that middle age for men (and apparently, 44 represents the nadir) is a very difficult time. Decrepitude and physical decay are taking their toll, career stagnation is biting, men start to look around them at their peers and up and down the ladder, possibly with feelings of inadequacy or disappointment, rueing wasted opportunities, status anxiety, financial worries, supporting ageing parents and with school age fees to pay. Add in an ever more stressful and unpredictable economic environment and you have the seeds of despair.
Relationship breakdown, loss of job, chronic financial pressures, serious health problems, the upheaval and losses of middle age can trigger depressive episodes. All this, accompanied by the very real social disease of loneliness, which is endemic in many, so call ‘developed’ societies which robs a person of the significant other who represents an intimate confiding voice and this may, in many people engender suicidal thinking. So why are we so surprised?
I found myself at an event this Sunday which, for the first time, gave an airing to these sorts of views. It was quite an eye opener. It was at a Buddhist themed event and the open discussion was entitled dying to talk – subtitled Choosing to Die “There are many ways of choosing to die such as suicide and assisted dying. A supportive space to share personal stories.” It was held sitting on embroidered cushions sipping herbal tea in a teepee. AS we went round the circle there was a palpable appetite to invite death in, to discuss death in a more positive, fruitful way. As we went round the room I was remind of the Buddhist parable about the grieving woman encouraged by the Buddha to bring a grain from the house of someone who had not experienced, or was not experiencing bereavement. Once she had done the rounds of the village she was still in mourning but was largely cured of her self-pity, realising that every householder she visited had been affected by death in some way. I shared about my friend and how much I felt for his isolation. The man on my left said he had lost his Buddhist faith, was in between jobs and had been considering suicide and was distressed bi it. Two of his friends had died recently in quick succession, one in a bitter suicide, the other through assisted dying. Another man had lost his twin brother and was still struggling to overcome his sense of survivor guilt and to grieve properly. He had come to connect. A woman had coached her severely disabled friend through her decision to die and being with her in her voluntary starvation regime after having been diagnosed with a compounding condition that compromised her quality of life. A good looking young girl then shared about how she fluctuated on a weekly basis between a relish for life and craving oblivion. And also how exasperated she has been at not only failed suicide attempts but also with how much pluck you need to do it. She had been put off on a cliff precipice by a dog walking interloper or a miscalculated a pill dosage. She said that she was at peace with the idea of dying and said she was not afraid of death should it be her chosen path. Then there was the girl, on the brink of tears talking about the suicide of her little brother some years beforehand. She said that she cried for his loss and the fact that a search party was needed to find the body but she said she did not regret his decision since he had made it clear that he wanted to die – he suffered from health problems, addictions and mental illness and a rehab which was his last chance to get clean had not worked. She described his death as perfect, beautiful and unselfish and whilst missing him, she respected his decision. I was wowed by the power of these honest shares from people bereft and in mourning, struggling with a variety of feelings, but at the very least respectful and in many cases in awe of the brave, ominous decisions their loved one had made, against great fear, in their own interest.
This is a million miles away from the knee jerk reactions of the media to suicide where the unholy trinity of cowardice, selfishness and stupidity are trotted out in order to condemn the right to die by one’s own hand. Of course, I do not in any way condone suicide and would do all I could to help someone who asked for help. I just believe that the obstinate refusal of many to engage with the complex mechanics of the process and to admit that some people can make perfectly logical decisions to end their own life to be a bit moronic. This is the ostrich-in-the-sand logic analogous to those who say we ‘should never negotiate with terrorists’ – well, negotiate maybe not, but at least talk to them, seek to understand what motivates them, their genuine grievances and it might actually save some lives. So, what can we do about this? Well, for me this is an issue about societal acceptance of death, understanding depression and changing masculinity. All I can do is work on myself – it is an inside job. I have found that my Buddhist practice and mindfulness meditation that renders me more equanimous towards and detaches me from negative, morbid, unhelpful thoughts, is a major antidote. The First Noble Truth consists in the axiom that life entails suffering. Wanted things don’t happen, unwanted things happen, we suffer. We become fond of and cling to things that change: people move away, or renounce us or die. We get sick, decay, grow old and eventually all die. However Buddha said that death is not a tragedy. We are all born to die. It is failing to realize how precious this life is that is the real tragedy. When we meditate long enough we can see this truth in our mind body complex at an experiential level and how we have been conditioned to identify with or to avoid these thoughts. We see how every thought and sensation arises and passes away: absolutely nothing abides – everything is impermanent – including negative thoughts. Buddhism teaches that a desire to escape suffering is normal, but that seeking to do so by ending one’s life is ultimately based on delusion about the power our thoughts have over us; it is the painful things that most help us to develop wisdom. In the book “There’s More to Dying Than Death” Buddhist nun Lama Shenpen Hookham shows how the whole of Buddhist practice can be seen as a long rehearsal for death and that need not be morbid since an awareness of ephemerality can allow us to live more fully. Meditation is a great resource for those suffering in depression.
But what about at a societal level? Clearly there is a problem with men asking for help. I believe nothing less than a cultural shift is required. Beyondblue the Australian support service show that ‘men who feel suicidal often share similar distinctive traits and experiences before they try to end their lives… The Men’s Experiences with Suicidal Behaviour and Depression Project found that among four elements common among suicidal men for instance depressed or disrupted mood, presence of things that are stressful and a tendency to isolate themselves socially is what they call “stoic beliefs about masculinity”. In other words, stoic beliefs around masculinity are literally a killer. As Terence Blacker argues in his book “I Don’t Want to Talk About it”, fewer men tend to be diagnosed with depression, because male depression tends to be concealed in addiction, violence and workaholism. Exasperation with life and thwarted will to power without outlet over time is likely to result in pent up wrath eventually congealing into self hatred and suicidal thinking this given extra sting by the self disgust associated with the thoughts themselves. Blacker writes: “The issue is shame. While depression may carry some sense of stigma for all people, the disapprobation attached to this disease is particularly acute for men. The very definition of manhood lies in ’standing up’ to discomfort and pain. In the calculus of male pride, stoicism prevails….A man brought down in life is bad enough. But a man brought down by his own unmanageable feeling – for many, that is unseemly.” And so these deaths continue…
CALM in the UK write: “Suicidal thoughts show that life is tough and there is nothing to be ashamed of having the thoughts. The thoughts themselves are normal, but bottling them up is dangerous and the secrecy and shame surrounding them leads to them becoming more intense.” So, how do we help men open up around this issue?
In my next blog piece, I will explore the possible ways we might tackle this complex problem.
By Anonymous for Urban Dandy